When you think about the blues, you rarely conjure up an image of a skinny albino hippie from Texas covered with tattoos, but that’s exactly what you get with the legendary Johnny Winter. While his visual doesn’t exactly fit the mold of great blues artists from the past, his 40-year/30 album career proves that his music does. Renowned by old-school blues greats and up and coming revivalists alike, Winter’s aggressive, unpolished approach to his craft became a signature that fans all over the world grew to love, admire, and respect.
When Winter died unexpectedly a few months back (at the age of 70), it left an gaping void in the international blues community. Step Back is his final studio album, and it follows his 2011 release Roots in paying tribute to his various blues influences. Like Roots, the album is filled with guest appearances from all over the blues world. Eric Clapton, Ben Harper, Billy Gibbons, Joe Perry, Dr. John, Leslie West, Brian Setzer, and Joe Bonnamassa all lend a hand in recording some of the greatest, if not at least most well-known, blues songs of our time.
Produced by Winter’s guitarist, Paul Nelson, the album is full of gritty, soaring guitar, the kind of straightforward blues-rock style Winter has always been known for. What stands out more than anything is that it’s obvious over his last two albums that Winter still found joy and excitement in it all, and he went out playing perhaps as well as he ever had, having learned the nuances of these classic blues songs inside and out. Highlights here include versions of Lightnin’ Hopkins’ “Mojo Hand” (with Aerosmith’s Joe Perry), Bobby Bland’s “Don’t Want No Woman” (with Eric Clapton), Fats Domino’s “Blue Monday” (with Dr. John), and my personal favorite, Gatemouth Brown’s “Okie Dokie Stomp” (with Brian Setzer). Even with such a star-studded who’s-who on board, it’s still Winter’s show. Johnny – for the most part – puts his guest musicians in their place by out-dueling and outshining them, but all in good fun.
There are a few issues with this record – the production wasn’t amazing, the playlist seems a bit vanilla at times, and nothing here is innovative or particularly startling – but it’s hard to be overly critical here due to Winter’s demise and the huge impact he had on the modern blues scene.
Ben Harper, when asked about his participation on the album said, “The blues means everything to me, and Johnny Winter meant everything to the blues.”
“There is not one note, lick or riff I will ever play that doesn’t owe an unpayable debt to Johnny Winter. I play the way I play because I couldn’t play like Johnny Winter.
“While simultaneously breaking musical and cultural barriers, he was one of the ordained architects who went on to define the blues not only for generations, but for an entire genre. As an artist, he played and sang with a rare and unparalleled urgency and sincerity that requires musicians of all stature to listen and learn. As a producer, Johnny Winter was the gatekeeper whom Muddy Waters entrusted to further his own sound. That says it all.
“Johnny Winter was the gospel truth, one of the rare and hallowed musical pillars of the blues. Tonight I’m gonna play Johnny Winter real loud in my house, then try to cop a lick or two of his and once again wonder, ‘How on Earth did he play that!?’”
It’s comforting to know that Winter went out in peace with the blues and his legacy, and most importantly, without his skills diminishing. While Step Back doesn’t always match the tenacity set forth early in his career, it is a defining collection of friends and classic blues tracks that are as grand of a send-off as Winters could have hoped for.
Rest in peace, Johnny. The world is a little less cool without you.